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Big Improvement In Rookie Class
by Ridge Mahoney, September 4th, 2009 3:30PM



All those voters who last year named Sean Franklin as their top choice for MLS Rookie of the Year are in a real pickle this time around.

Franklin, certainly, did a credible job in the middle for a bad Galaxy team, though his natural spot is right back. Still, a team that conceded 62 goals, as the Galaxy did last year, deserves a lot of blame to be spread around, despite his toughness and blistering pace.

This year's rookie crop is far superior to that of last year, when top offensive candidate Kheli Dube finished the season with just four goals and four assists, and the other finalist, Geoff Cameron, played several positions and started only eight games.

There are not one, but two, Galaxy rookie defenders vying for the honor this year, and even should A.J. DeLaGarza lose out to teammate Omar Gonzalez, it has to be said both have been better and more consistent - as has been the Galaxy as a team -- than Franklin was in 2008.

So have many other rookies, especially D.C. United's Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace, Sam Cronin and Stefan Frei of Toronto, and another back-line pairing, that of Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes in New England.

This year's bunch has talent, certainly, but what has impressed veterans like United midfielder Ben Olsen, who's seen Pontius and Wallace on a daily basis since preseason began, and observed Wallace during his college career, is their maturity.

"I've been very impressed," says Olsen, who in the Open Cup final was replaced by Wallace in the 82nd minute. "Not much fazes him. He's one of those kids who loves to go out there and get on with it, very confident.

"We didn't know much about Chris until he came, but it didn't take more than a couple days to see that he was a player. What has struck me about both of them is how mature they are, and the composure and savvy that they have at their age. I certainly didn't have that composure when I was that age. That was nice to see."

Galaxy coach Bruce Arena gambled by putting his two rookie defenders side-by-side on the right, with veteran Gregg Berhalter as the left central defender and Todd Dunivant at left back. Arena's reasoning was simple; they played together at Maryland, which would accelerate both their development as professional players as well as foster better communication in the back. Franklin may regain his spot when he recovers from a torn hamstring - he resumed training just this week - but it won't be an easy process.

"They were a little bit wide-eyed when they came in, but that didn't last long," says Dunivant of Gonzalez and DeLaGarza. "You could tell they had already learned a lot of the lessons it takes some rookies a while to figure out."

Midfielder Cronin and goalkeeper Frei have stabilized TFC in the middle of the park, and further tweaking in midseason by Coach Chris Cummins - who dropped veteran goalie Greg Sutton to signal his confidence in Frei - has added more pace and energy for the stretch run. As a whole, the league's style of play is more physical and less polished than in its formative years, which critics may bemoan but coaches have little choice other than to find the players capable of success within those parameters.

Maybe that's the secret: get a pair of good rookies and play them both, though No. 1 pick Steve Zakuani has done pretty well more or less on his own in Seattle. For this year's rich crop of rookies, their talent and zeal override the errors of inexperience.

"It's important to have a couple of young guys because that spirit, that energy is contagious," says Olsen, who broke into the league in 1998 after playing at the University of Virginia. "On the field, it's nice to have some young legs running around for you, especially when you're a 32-year-old, one-legged man in midfield."



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